Why Goal­-Setting For Memory Improvement Should Be Your Number One Priority

12345This is Andrew Barr and today I’m sitting in for Anthony in this guest post.

I’m from and over there I help Spanish students get a conversational level of Spanish using specific tactics and strategies to improve their effectiveness as language students.

And in this post I’m going to teach you how you can apply some of these strategies to significantly improve your effectiveness when it comes to your memorisation challenges using the principles of the Magnetic Memory Method.

Whether you are just starting out with memory palaces or you are a seasoned professional, today you will learn three ways you can improve your effectiveness with memory palaces in order to achieve your goals with less effort and in less time.

If you are already using Memory Palaces and mnemonics you are well ahead of the curve. You already know that using memory techniques improves the efficiency of learning. But, it is still possible to get even more out of your approach to memorisation.

It doesn’t matter whether you are using the Magnetic Memory Method for language learning, acing exams in school, vying for a memory championship title or trying to impress friends at a party. There are three steps you need to consider if you want to have even more success with your memory challenges.

Memory Palaces Are a Means, But …

What is the Goal?


“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question; I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” — Albert Einstein.

“Begin with the end in mind” — Stephen Covey.

Before you can start to maximise the potential of your memory palace training you need a clear vision of what you are a trying to achieve. A memory palace is a tool that you can use to achieve any number of outcomes with incredible efficiency. But the real power comes when your outcome is sharply defined.

The problem is that, often, we don’t clearly define where we want to end up, which makes the path to get there a lot harder than it needs to be.

Recently, I met a guy who works for an oil company and was telling me about his vision to become rich. He said he had his whole plan mapped out. His plan was to buy property after property and then subdivide and develop. He told me he wanted to have a few million in property, a few million in stocks and a few million in cash for those “just in case” moments.

After mapping the whole plan out, I looked at him and said “Why? What is all this money for? If money is a means to an end, what is your end goal?”

He said “I want to work with children”.


I Couldn’t Believe It


I said “why don’t you become a teacher?” He said “I want to work with disadvantaged children”. He then told me that he didn’t need the money to pay for programs for the children, he needed it so he could live without needing to work to free up his time. I told him he didn’t need millions of dollars to do that.

I told him about a good friend of mine—a high school teacher who quit her job to work with disadvantaged children. She left her job here in Australia and moved to the Solomon Islands where she is working and living on a small allowance to cover her board and her food. She is working with the local teachers to develop a new curriculum in the school. As well as helping and teaching the children that live in the local area.

She didn’t need millions of dollars, she was clear about what she wanted to do and she went and did it.

After telling him the story, he just stared at me blankly.

He offered a few excuses but it was obvious there was a disconnect between the goal and the means for getting there.

Without a clear vision in mind, it is possible he will spend years trying to achieve a poorly defined goal. What if it takes him 30 years to meet his goal? Will it be worth it if he gets there in his 60s? Or worse, if he doesn’t get there at all?


Don’t Get Caught With A Poorly Defined Goal


He is not the only one, though, who got caught with a poorly defined goal. I too have found myself without a clear vision at times.

Seven years ago I decided I wanted to be fluent in Spanish. I did some online research and found some resources for beginners. I printed everything off and got to work. I practiced for quite some time learning whatever I could about the Spanish language.

Within two years, I organised my first trip to Spain. Before I got there I was so excited for the fun and adventure I was going to have with my new language skills. I was going to make local friends, I was going to go to interesting places only the locals knew about and I was going to experience Spain the way a typical tourist couldn’t.


Does Language Learning Overwhelm, Confuse And Frustrate You?


When I got there, the reality was a completely different thing. I was overwhelmed, confused and frustrated.

My Spanish was hopeless. It was miles from what I thought it was. I couldn’t understand what the locals were saying. I couldn’t remember what I had learnt. And when I did remember how to say something, I translated literally from English and got a lot of strange looks.

When I returned to Australia I was deflated. I thought my abilities in language learning were worthless and I should move on to other pursuits.

Shortly after my return, I met up with a few friends in bar. They brought along a friend from France. Her English was good but not amazing—it was good enough to communicate, better than my Spanish at least. I told her about my experience in Spain and for the next few hours we shared language learning war stories. She told me about her struggles with English. I asked her “despite what you are saying, I understand you perfectly, you can communicate. How did you get to this level?”

She then told me something about language learning that changed everything for me. She said “you can just keep learning forever, and that’s it!” I asked her what she meant.

She told me that, if I wanted to, I could spend every day for the rest of my life learning something about the Spanish language. But, if I wasn’t clear about what I actually wanted to do with the language I would be lost learning for learning’s sake.

What do I mean?

In the English language there are over 250,000 words yet only 20,000 are used in regular day-to-day communication.


Sure, You Can Memorize A Gazillion Spanish Words … But Why?


For Spanish, these numbers are even better—there are a total of 100,000 words in the language yet the top 1000 most frequent words make up 87% of spoken communication. It is really quite amazing, you only 1% of the total number of Spanish words in existence for almost 90% of the conversation language.

What I discovered after talking to the French girl in the bar was that I could spend the rest of my life learning about 99,000 words in Spanish, but if I couldn’t use the most common 1000 words properly I would never have a chance to meet the locals and experience parts of the culture I had always wanted to experience.

So the question is — how well have you defined your goals? How well do you know and understand the outcome you truly want from the use of your memory palaces? And is there actually a disconnect between the information you are placing into your memory palace and what you actually need to know?

Anthony has mentioned that one of his most popular podcasts was How To Memorize A Textbook. It is possible to memorise a whole textbook using memory palaces. But as Anthony mentioned, and I reiterate here, before you start filling your memory palaces, you should start by eliminating components of the textbook that you aren’t actually going to need.

If you are preparing for an upcoming exam, are there components of the course that you won’t be tested for?

For example, imagine you have an upcoming chemistry test. The teacher tells you that the test will be on the periodic table. The question is—do you have to memorise all 118 elements? Maybe some quick research uncovers from the previous exam tests or maybe the teacher tells you that they will only test your memory for the first 50 elements. Now you only need 50 memory stations instead 118. Through defining a clearer goal you have made the path easier.

If you are studying a language, are there low frequency words that you are unlikely to ever use? Or are there words that you can eliminate because you can easily say them in another way?


The 3 Person Test


If we use language learning as an example, one word that I don’t particularly like is the word fluency. I encourage all of my students at Real Fast Spanish to stop using this particular word when trying to set goals in language learning.

For example, I mentioned that there are 100,000 words in the Spanish language. If you wanted to be “fluent” in Spanish (or Spanish and French, for that matter), how many of those 100,000 words should you put in a memory palace?

It is unclear, right? But …


What Does Fluency Mean?


Instead see if you can define a better goal for yourself. How? By using the 3 person test.

Start by coming up with an appropriate goal to help you move you from where you are now to where you want to be. Then ask 3 people if they clearly understand your goal. If they do, it is a good goal, if they don’t, you need to go back to the drawing board.

What you ultimately want from the 3 person test is a consensus from your panel of 3 when you have achieved your goal.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Imagine your goal is to count to 10 in Chinese. If you could do it, then the panel would all agree. Yes you have achieved your goal.

Now imagine your goal is to be fluent in German. When you ask three people if they think you are fluent then it is very possible you could get three different answers, when you think you are. One person might say ”yes”, one might say “maybe” and one might answer the question with another question. In this case your goal would fail the 3 person test.

Knowing and having a sharply defined outcome is the first step to maximising your effectiveness with your memory challenges. A clear end game allows you to carefully select the right information to place into your memory palace which will save you time and effort later.

Let’s look at the second step.


How to Overcome Resistance


“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work” — Steven Pressfield.

Once you are clear about what you actually need to put into your network of memory palaces and you have eliminated all unnecessary memorisation, you simply need to create the associated images and locate them where you know you can to find them later.

But, this is easier said than done right?

In order to fill your memory palace, you need to actually do the work. You need to overcome resistance.

Resistance, unfortunately, is a part of nature. It’s everywhere.

In the physical world, resistance is called inertia. Have you ever tried to move a large boulder? Or have you ever tried to push a car when the engine isn’t running? If you want to move large objects in the physical world you need to apply a lot of energy. You need to find a few friends or get the help of a large machine to apply enough force to start moving the object.

In the biological world, resistance is called homeostasis. In the human body there are hundreds of processes all working to maintain the status quo. There are buffers in the blood to maintain pH. Insulin is used to maintain sugar levels. Our bodies also use metabolic and perspiration processes to maintain a constant internal body temperature.

If you want to change your internal body temperature—which is not recommended—you need to go into a freezing cold place or an extremely hot place and stay there for enough time to break down the body’s internal regulation systems. In other words, a lot of thermal energy is required to overcome biological resistance.

In the psychological world resistance is called procrastination. Let me ask you this question—have you ever procrastinated?


Why Do We Procrastinate?


It’s because procrastination is similar to inertia and homeostasis. And here’s the thing—it’s not your fault! If you have ever procrastinated it’s because resistance is everywhere in nature. Nature loves to resist change.

So if you want to overcome procrastination, like the large boulder or the internal body temperature, you need to apply enough energy to overcome the resistance. If you want to successfully populate your memory palace with all of the carefully selected data you have chosen in step 1, you need to overcome your psychological resistance to change. How? If you want to overcome resistance you need to apply enough energy. For psychological resistance …


You Need To Apply Emotional Energy


What does that mean?

Have you ever had a big exam, assignment or report due for work that you left to the very last minute? Maybe you left it until the night before or the morning of. Let me ask you this question—in the end, were you able to pull an all nighter or some other feat of poor health in order to get the assignment done? If so, what changed?

In the lead up to the assignment, you were resisting it—naturally. Then when the deadline came close, you started to worry about failing or getting in trouble at work. At a certain point the resistance to doing the work was overcome by the emotional energy that came out of the fear of failure or getting into trouble.

Knowing this, if you want to successfully fill your memory palace, you need to develop enough emotional energy to overcome the naturally occurring psychological resistance.


The Test of the Five Whys


One idea that you can use to build emotional energy is the test of the “the five whys”. This idea originally came from industrial manufacturing as a strategy to pinpoint the cause of potential breakdowns in the production chain. They needed the test because human beings aren’t particularly good at getting to the heart of an issue.

If you want to truly understand why you should do something you need to ask “why?” five times. The true answer is rarely obvious from the first why.

If you want to unearth a limitless source of emotional energy for overcoming resistance, you need to get to the heart of your motivation.

Let’s see an example. I will give an example for learning Spanish because it’s what I’m used to. But you can apply the test to whatever memory outcome you are striving for.

Imagine you have a well defined small task to place 10 new Spanish words into a memory palace.

The five “whys” test would go as follows:

Why do I have to learn these Spanish words? Because they are important for Spanish.
Why is knowing Spanish important? Because I want to be able to speak another language.
Why do I want to speak another language? Because I want to experience a new culture.
Why do I want to experience a new culture? Because it will enrich my life.
Why do I want to enrich my life? Because it is the best way to live!

As you can see, by using the five ”whys” test I have connected the trivial task of placing 10 words in a memory palace with a higher life purpose. By asking the question “why” five times you can access a deep well of emotional energy and use that energy to overcome procrastination and resistance.

Once you have a sharply defined goal and you have overcome resistance at a task level, the final step is to create a routine that will allow maximum effectiveness with the Magnetic Memory Method.


Creating a Routine Allows You to Create


“Discipline allows magic. To be a writer is to be the very best of assassins. You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her.” ― Lili St. Crow.

“You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.” ― Anne Lamott.

One important aspect of memory palaces is the creation of associated imagery. If you want to fill a memory palace you need to create and be creative. You need to take an abstract word, sentence or formula and create an associated image that you can use to recall the idea later.

Said in another way, if you want to be more effective with memory palaces you need to improve your creative muscle.


How To Be More Creative


How then can you be more creative?

If I said the key to creativity is routine there would be artists all over that would cringe at the suggestion. Creativity is about spontaneity. It’s about moments of inspiration that can’t be bottled. And these types of moments come when we least expect them, right? At least that what I used to think.

What do Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Albert Einstein and Mark Zuckerberg all have in common? They all wore the same clothes every day. Steve Jobs is famous for his black turtle neck and blue jeans. Barack Obama has said that he simply either wears a grey suit or a blue suit. Zuckerberg rocks a black hoodie. And Einstein was known for wearing a similar grey suit every single day.

Why do they limit their wardrobes? They all choose to wear the same clothes everyday because of a concept called decision fatigue.

The idea behind decision fatigue is simple—every time you make a decision a future decision will be slightly compromised. In other words, every time you make a decision you are more likely to make a worse decision later.

For President Obama, decision making is a crucial part of his job. He can’t afford to make bad decisions. Therefore he limits simple decisions like what to wear or what to eat to someone else. What this does is leave him more decision making power for the important decisions—the types of decisions that could affect the future of the country.

Have you ever had the feeling at the end of a long day at work or college and when it came time to do something as simple as choosing what to have for dinner, the decision of what to cook was overwhelming? This is due to decision fatigue.

So what does decision fatigue have to do with creativity?


There Is A Trade-Off Between Every Decision You Make And Your Highest Order Thinking


Creative types like Steve Jobs and Anne Lamott know that they need to reserve their best thinking for creation. In order to do this they cut down decision making in their lives to an absolute minimum. They did this through routine. Either by wearing the same clothes or sitting down at a desk to write at the same time every day.

The evidence of other artists that used routine for creation is overwhelming. In Mason Currey’s book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work”, Currey lays out the daily routines and habits of 161 of the world’s greatest artists such as Woody Allen, Agatha Christie, Leo Tolstoy, Pablo Picasso, Benjamin Franklin and Jane Austen.

Why does routine work so well for creation?

Charles Duhigg, the author of the power of habit, says that the brain starts working less and less as we start to form regular habits. The brain can almost completely shut down and this is a huge advantage because it means you now have free mental space that you can dedicate to something else.

This is how the world’s greatest artists work and you can test it for yourself.


How To Easily Assign “Pre-Commitments”


If you want to harness the power of routine and minimise decision fatigue, start by creating pre-commitments.

A pre-commitment is a decision that you make a head of time. And ideally a decision you make only once.

There are so many decisions you may be making on a daily basis—decisions that may seem inconsequential but add up quickly to fatigue of your highest order thinking.

What you want to avoid is having to make hundred of decisions in any typical day:

– What should I eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner?
– What should I wear?
– What should I buy from the supermarket on the way home?
– Do we need extra supplies for the coming week?
– Should I buy that new jacket or those shoes?

Then after all those decisions:

– When should I sit down to work on my memory palace?
– Should I work on the memory palace in the morning, evening, on my lunch break, or after dinner?
– Should I work on my memory palace for 20 minutes or an hour?
– What parts of my memory palace should I be focusing on today?


But There Are So Many Decisions … It’s Overwhelming!


Start by taking stock of all of these daily decisions and start making pre-commitments. Try to make decisions ahead of time. For example, you could decide on a Sunday evening everything you are going to wear for the week and eat for every meal.

Here is a powerful strategy: can you work on your memory palace at the same time for the same amount of time every single day? Can you remove the decision of when or whether to work on your memory palace completely?

If you don’t have to make a decision of whether to work on your memory palace, you can save your best thinking for the first, second or third location based image you have to place in your memory palace.

Can you avoid decision fatigue? Can you use pre-commitments and routine to minimise as many decisions in your life as possible?

If you can, you will leave your mind maximum freedom to create and be creative. A freedom that will allow you to create amazing things, crazy and vivid imagery that will infinitely improve the power of your associated images and the effectiveness of the Magnetic Memory Method.


What Wikipedia Won’t Tell You About The Real Path To Overcoming Procrastination And Learning At The Deepest Possible Level


Memory devices and mnemonics improve learning efficiency. The Magnetic Memory Method is a wonderful framework for putting the use of memory devices in a usable process. Put simply—it works!

If you want to take the Magnetic Memory Method to the next level and be a more effective memoriser you should start with a clear vision of the outcome you want to achieve from the use of your memory palaces.

A clear vision allows you to save time by first removing information you don’t actually need to memorise. This in turn means you can focus more intensely on the information that truly matters.

Once you are clear about your destination, you then need to overcome psychological resistance to change. You can do this by connecting deeply with your underlying motivation in order to build the emotional energy you need to overcome procrastination.

And finally you can maximise the effectiveness of the Magnetic Memory Method by minimising decision fatigue and incorporating routines into your daily life. If you can reduce the daily mental load of simple inconsequential decisions, you can release your creative potential for a vivid world of associated imagery.

6 Responses

  1. Dear Anthony, I am a student from Indonesia. I am really interested in some techniques in memorizing foreign language words. Can you tell me how I can use the Magnetic Memory Method to memorize some new words? Is this method similar to mnemonics? Thank you.

    1. Thanks for this question, Rifki.

      The Magnetic Memory Method is definitely centered on mnemonics, but mnemonics of a particular kind. The MMM focuses on Memory Palaces that let you select carefully chosen vocabulary (ideally the vocabulary that you’re going to use right away) and then quickly get that vocabulary into long term memory.

      You do this by:

      1) Creating a well-functioning Memory Palace. Check out my free Memory Improvement Kit for information about that.

      2) Gather the words you want to memorize. You can also embed those words in full phrases from the get-go, or come back and add a phrase to each word later. Both approaches are equally good, but you do need to consider the context of how you’re going to use the word.

      3) Place the words along a Memory Palace journey, encoding each one with vibrant and ridiculous imagery. Again, the Memory Improvement Kit shows you how to do this.

      4) Practice proper Recall Rehearsal to ensure that you get the words into long term memory.

      5) Read, write, speak and hear the words you’ve learned and continue doing this every day. Even if you memorize just one word a day, think of the progress you will have made in a month. Memorize 5 words a day, 10 words a day … the more you add, the more you maximize your results.

      Hope this helps! 🙂

  2. I know this comment is a bit late in coming. But I’ve just listened to the podcast (again) on my evening walk and I want to say thanks for putting it together. I think the argument is well laid out and expressed.

    1. Great that you gave this a second listen, Richard! I love doing that myself with good podcasts. It’s one of the few areas where I enjoy and benefit from spaced-repetition. 😉

      I’ve been toying around quite a bit lately with using my walking routes to memorize key points, particularly urls that people mention in their episodes. Have you tried anything like that?

  3. I have difficulty finding associated imagery for the words I need to I am just visualizing charts or sentences on walls or stations of my memory this enough or should I include more imagery..if so could u suggest me some app or way to create imagery for my medical terms.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Soorya.

      My suggestion is that you learn memory techniques and just get started with the practice of creating images. Start small with 5-10 Magnetic Stations.

      Then develop just one Magnetic Image on one Magnetic Station. “Massage” the imagery into the station.

      Then go on to the next one.

      Soon you’ll find that you’re going faster and faster with higher and higher levels of recall.

      I’m quite confident that if you follow this suggestion, you’ll find great success. But if you’re looking for an app to do the heavy lifting for you … please beware of digital amnesia.

      Using an app might not give you the results you’re looking for an possibly prove quite destructive.

      Hope this helps and thanks again for stopping by! 🙂

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

His most popular books include, The Victorious Mind and… Read More

Anthony Metivier taught as a professor at:


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